Posted by: mensab | November 3, 2007

Reflection on Enlightenment and Modernity, Rationality, and Emancipation Within Culture

Reflection on Enlightenment and Modernity, Rationality, and Emancipation Within Culture     

     The transformations and changes happening in Europe between 16th and 19th centuries such as the invention of printing press, rising of nation-states, colonialization of new lands, standardization of time, development of linear perspective, among others led to demand new ways of looking at, understanding and explaining things and events through the social science (Pertierra; 1997). This preoccupied many great thinkers to theorize on the phenomena of changes. They set a “wide-ranging system of ideas that deals with the centrally important issues of social life” known as sociological theory (Ritzer; 1988). Two forces that shaped and brought about the development and rise of sociological theories – the social and intellectual forces of that time. One of those intellectual forces was the Enlightenment from which this essay reflects upon based on the article of Michel Foucault, What is Enlightenment? Then it proceeds with the major sociological theories of Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism and Jurgen Habermas’ Aspects of the Rationality of Action. In the last part of the essay would be the reflection on Raul Pertierra’s Emancipation Within Culture. This essay attempts to present the location and contribution of the said articles in the anthropological and sociological knowledge that we have.  


 Foucault’s What is Enlightenment?      

     The title is the same question answered by Immanuel Kant’s Was ist Aufklarung in 1784. It was basically a reflection of a great thinker on his own present. At that time, present was conceived in three forms; 1) as an “era of the world distinct from the others through some inherent characteristics, ” 2) a sign of a forthcoming event, 3) “a point of transition toward the dawning of a new world.” And Kant departed from this conception. He saw the present as an “exit” or “way out” from the state of “immaturity” described as letting the others direct or lead in an area where one is unable to make use of his/her reason when it is called for. For example in Kant’s article, when a book does the understanding for a person, that person is in a state of “immaturity.” Lazinesss and cowardice are the reasons cited by Kant for this “immaturity.” So he proposed a motto or instruction for Enlightenment – Aude sapere, “dare to know,” or “have courage to use your own reason.” For Kant, he characterized Enlightenment as both a task and obligation, individually and collectively. He also distinguished the private use of reason and public use of reason. On one hand, when one is a “cog in a machine” or plays a role in society, he make a private use of reason in determined circumstances and ends in view. When one, on the other hand, uses reasoning as a reasonable being and for reasoning’s sake, it is a public use of reason that must be free.     

     Foucault (1984) summarized what Kant’s description of enlightenment as; “ the moment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority; now it is precisely at this moment that the critique is necessary, since its role is that of defining the conditions under which the use of reason is legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped….. Enlightenment is the age of the critique.”      This, for Foucault, characterizes the “attitude of modernity.” Although modernity has been referred to as an epoch in history, sandwiched between premodernity and postmodernity, Foucault would like to picture it as an attitude rather than an epoch of history. By attitude, he meant “a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way too of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos.”     

     He cited Charles Baudelaire to further describe this attitude of modernity as “characterized in terms of consciousness of the discontinuity of time: a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, of vertigo in the face of the passing moment, ” the heroization of the present is regarding it very highly and imagining it other than what it is, and as  “ a mode of relationship that has to be established with oneself,” inventing and reinventing oneself. And the fourth which Foucault added, these characterizations of modernity can be produced through art.     

     If this attitude or ethos of Enlightenment and modernity is a critique of our historical era, it has its stakes which are the differentiated capabilities and the growing autonomy vis-à-vis power relations, homogeneity which organizes the way and purpose things are done, systemacity which is mediated by our relationships with others and ourselves, and generality which bears the practices and discourses. We may then refuse to accept whatever it presents to us as alternative. We must constantly question and pose historical inquiries that converge truth and liberty wherever and whenever possible. These inquiries must be tested and based on contemporary reality. The philosophical ethos espoused here involves analyzing and reflecting on the limits of the knowledge but they should not hinder us from transgressing. This transgression may take the place of discontinuity or break from tradition. Giddens (1999) stated that, “the idea of tradition then is itself a creation of modernity.” He further said that traditions are invented recently for diverse reasons. One of which, according to Giddens, is to “give continuity and form to life,” and that there seems to be a “symbiosis between modernity and tradition” – one needing the other to protect and justify its existence.      

      Going back to Kant’s description of Enlightenment as an “exit” or “way out,” it is like we are inside a theater or cinema surrounded by darkness, distracted and absorbed by the reality flashed on screen different from what we know of it; but a little red sign flickers that invites us to a way out in case of fire. This fire represents the changes and ruptures of routines. Truly, it feels good to be staying forever inside a cinema. It entertains us and makes us forget our problems for a time being. Or we are just afraid to confront our own shadows that cause us prefer to hide in the darkness? Kant reminded us that the enlightened is not afraid of shadows. Being afraid of the shadows seems natural, but in reality it can be critically interrogated. To do this, it takes a philosophical attitude which Foucault propounded, a critique of who we are, an analysis of our limits imposed on us and an experiment or project of transcendental possibilities. 


      Two prominent works of sociological theorists on rationality form the discussion of this part; Max Webber and Jurgen Habermas.  

Weber’s Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism      

     Weber started by citing circumstances that manifested Western civilization as the source of various developments with significant value and recognition as valid today. Some of these developments were the codification of books, rational jurisprudence, harmonious music, perspective in art, rise of a modern state with written constitution, laws and administration, among other things that had to do with astronomy, architecture, view of history, literature, etc.  Included in these developments was the “most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism.” He asserted that capitalism is not in any way identical with unlimited greed for gain; rather it is identical with continuous renewal of profit through continuous capitalistic enterprise. The economic action through capitalistic undertakings of continuous operations of an enterprise was differentiated from the speculative acquisition of profit from wars, piracy, exploitation of subjects, election, etc. The former was being the legal and systematic pursuit of profit. There were other things that brought about this Western capitalism such as the organization of free labor, the separation of business from the household, rational bookkeeping, the notion of personal property, rational structures of law and administration by trained officials or bureaucracy, and the utilization of scientific knowledge in modern science particularly mathematics.     

     Then the question as to why in the West did this exacting capitalism emerge remains unsettled to a large extent. For example, the opening of a public library, the offering of scholarships, the introduction of new business courses in a local university, the passage of a resolution increasing the subsidy for education would not greatly explain satisfactorily the growing number of entrepreneurs in a certain town. There must be the fundamental shift in the disposition of the town folks toward business engagements to be able to explain the phenomenon and this new conduct. And Weber recognized that the magical and religious forces and the ethical ideas of duty had been the most essential influences on conduct of men/women, on the “development of economic spirit or ethos of economic system.” With this, the spirit of capitalism was associated with the “rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism especially Calvinism.”     

     Certain religious ideas such as proficiency in a calling as work, expression of virtues of honesty, frugality, punctuality, and industry, avoidance of life’s pleasures, and gaining wealth as a sign of an election of the saved were informing this ethic of capitalistic culture. Weber identified traditionalism in both the laborers and entrepreneur as anti-spirit of capitalism. Traditional laborers were those of pre-capitalistic labor that was interested in earning the usual rate no matter how attractive the opportunity to earn more. The employer’s wish of efficiency and high productivity by means of increased labor rate went to naught in the arms of traditional laborers. As compared with capitalistic labor, workers were responsible and released from counting the rates and income with maximum comfort and minimum effort. In this case, labor is performed as a calling. However, the traditional entrepreneurs, on one hand, were concerned with the satisfaction of needs, that is acquisition of goods necessary to meet the needs. Capitalistic entrepreneurs on the other hand acquired goods and profit untied by the limits set by needs. They sought to gain profit rationally and systematically. Traditionalism persisted for a while but the process of rationalization of areas of life destroyed it. Some features of modern economic life were the extended the productivity of labor, labor for a rational organization providing service and goods for humanity, calculated future, and direction with foresight     

     It has been acknowledged that “rationalization lies at the heart of Weber’s substantive sociology” (Ritzer; 1988).  “By rationalization he meant the process of making life more efficient and predictable by wringing out individuality and spontaneity in life” (Adams and Sydie: 2002). This is why he did not see actions as fragmented but patterned within civilizations, institutions, organizations, strata, classes, and groups (Ritzer; 1988). He was interested in understanding the meaning, causes, and consequences of action (Adams and Sydie: 2002). There were 4 types of meaningful social action for Weber (1925); 1) instrumental rational action “occurs when the end, the means, and the secondary results are all rationally taken into account and weighed, 2) value-rational action is based on a “conscious belief in the value for its own sake,” 3) affectual action or emotional action, 4) traditional action is “determined by ingrained habituation.” His theory was a search for rational action.      

     While Weber’s capitalism was seen as a response to Marx’s analysis of capitalism and both were interested in discovering the historical causal relationship that had resulted to the current state of modern society, he however refused to consider the “material factors could explain every aspect of social reality” (Adams and Sydie: 2002). In Weber’s view, ideas especially religious ideas were critical aspects of action (ibid). Protestant ethic as an idea system was linked with another system of ideas, the spirit of capitalism (Ritzer; 1988). “In other words, two systems of ideas are directly linked in this work” (ibid). But he failed to link the rational action with the idea systems.     

     “Unlike Marx and Durkheim who both projected optimistic outcomes in the transition to modernity, Weber rejects the Enlightenment’s view of evolutionary progress and happiness. Instead, he projects a ‘polar night of icy,’ a highly rational and bureaucratically organized social order, an ‘iron cage’ in which people are trapped” (Farganis: 1993). Furthermore, “despite these rationalizing trends, Weber believes that the complexity of social life ultimately outstrips the ability of the social sciences to fully comprehend it” (Tucker; 1998). Sadly, we are supposed to be liberated by reason, Weber saw the opposite. 

Habermas’ Aspects of the Rationality of Action     

     Habermas’ point of departure was Weber’s approach to rationality of action.  For Weber, action is treated as purposive activity. Habermas argued that this approach was just coming from one point of view to appraise actions as rational and that there were other aspects of rationality of action.      Applying the model of purposive-rational action in a specific context, its description as rational includes the judgment that the choice of means of the subject/agent seems valid and appropriate given the circumstances and limits of knowledge. Weber used “rational” and “rationalization” to refer to expressions of utterances, opinions, and actions which could justifiably be given reasons. “The rationality of opinions and actions is measured against validity claims that are based on reasons.”       

     At another level, Weber talked about systems-rationality of capitalism, state bureaucracy, and law but fell short in linking them with rationality of action. The social systems theorists like Parsons and Luhmann dissuaded from the rationality of the subjects bringing about the system, instead they elaborated on the system’s capacity to accommodate changes in the environment.     

     Weber’s typology of action makes a distinction in purposive-rational, value-rational, affectual, and traditional actions. An example using this typology would be going to school. Various reasons can be given for it. For traditional action, it is because my parents and siblings and almost everybody go to school. For affectual action, I go to school because I have fun in school with my classmates and I enjoy my stay there. For value-rational action, my reason for my going to school is to get education I need in life. And for purposive-rational action, I go to school to finish my studies, get my diploma to enable me to land a decent job in preparation for my future. With this model of action, it discounts social relationship as a reference point and “considers only the end-means relationship of a teleologically conceived, monological action to be capable of rationalization.” With this perspective, what could be considered rational are only those aspects of action that have “observable success of a causally effective intervention into an existing situation.” So Habermas introduced the concept of “communicative action” to draw out other aspects of the rationality of action that Weber ‘s action theory did not cover.     

     The purposive-rational action of Weber is geared toward the attainment of its goal and that other consequences of action are minor conditions for success. Habermas called this goal-oriented action as instrumental action wherein “we consider it from the aspect of following technical rules and evaluate the degree of efficacy of the intervention into a physical state of affairs,” whereas the other is called strategic action “when we consider it from the aspects of following rules of rational choice and evaluate the degree of efficacy of influencing the decisions of rational opponents.” In contrast to these success-oriented actions is the communicative action which is geared toward reaching an understanding. This understanding leads to an agreement which is not imposed but based on common conviction which can be criticized.     

     Referring to human language as the telos for reaching an understanding, actions oriented toward understanding can be analyzed from the model of the speech act. However, “a speech act can be contested, that is, rejected as ‘invalid’, basically from three aspects: from the aspect of the truth that the speaker claims for a proposition, from the aspect of the truthfulness that the speaker claims for the expression of his feelings, needs, wishes, intentions, etc., finally from the aspect of the rightness that the speaker claims for his action with reference to a given normative context.” Communicative actions can be contested as untrue, untruthful, and normatively wrong. In any case, it wishes to be understood in the first place. For analysis purposes, the pure cases of speech acts are ideal. Here Habermas was referring to “constative speech acts in which elementary prepositional sentences are employed,” “expressive speech acts in which elementary first person sentences appear,” and “institutionally bound speech acts correlated only with one simple and well-defined norm.” Each of these foregoing speech acts bears an attitude; a) objectivating attitude wherein a neutral observer reacts to something in his/her external world, b) expressive attitude wherein a subject reveals something of his/her inner world, c) conformative attitude wherein a member acts in an expected way in his/her social world. To illustrate this clearly, a comparative table below is presented taken from the Habermas’ article.  

Types of action Action orientation

Basic attitudes

Validity claims Relations to the world
Strategic action Oriented to success objectivating (efficacy)  External world
Constative speech act Oriented to reaching understanding  Objectivating  Truth  External world
Expressive self-representation Oriented to reaching understanding  Expressive  Truthfulness  Inner world
Normatively regulated action Oriented to reaching understanding Norm-conformative  Rightness  Social world

       In addition with the “catelogue” of pure types of action, Habermas also provided additional categories aside from the above table that “are intended to make analytic problematics plausible” in explaining the aspects of rationality of action he postulated earlier.   

 Pure types of action  

Types of knowledge

Forms of argumentative examination Models of transmissible knowledge
Constative speech acts Empirical-theoretical knowledge Theoretical discourse Theories
Purposive-rational action (strategic) Technically and strategically utilizable knowledge  Theoretical discourse Technologies strategies
Expressive action Aesthetic-practical knowledge Therapeutic and aesthetic critique Works of art
Normatively regulated action Moral-practical knowledge Practical discourse Legal and moral conceptions

       Habermas indicated two advantages of the theory of communicative action that could contribute in understanding the processes of social rationalization; 1) “with the pure types of action, we would have explained exactly those aspects under which action can be rationalized, that is, criticized and improved insofar as they incorporate ‘knowledge,’ 2) “with the concept of communicative action, we would have gained a non-arbitrary viewpoint from which a social system of institutions can be appraised as more or less ‘rational.’     

    In Beiner’s Rescuing the Rationalist Heritage (n.d.), it is noted that “Habermas still adheres to an Enlightenment concept of reason,” about its liberating character or in Kantian word – an ‘exit’ to immaturity.  This is why “he feels constrained to affirm Weber’s rationalization process and the modern forms of life that go with it” (ibid) which is the ‘iron cage.’ Pertierra (1988) describes the work of Habermas as “the most ambitious attempt to develop the emancipatory potential of reason.” Indeed, Habermas’ theory of communicative action breaks away from the rationalization envisaged by Weber as monological action. Habermas highlighted the social relationship we’re in, and so the cooperation of the other is taken into account. His communicative rationality involves this Other who enters into partnership with the other Other in an honest relationship and undistorted communication to be able reach an understanding.   

Pertierra’s Emancipation Within Culture

      Numerous usages of the word culture proliferate in the world today. Pertierra (1998) discusses the uses and anthropological meaning of culture and draws evocative examples from the Philippines as well as from the world. He traced the improvement of various definitions of culture from E. Tylor’s “complex whole” (1871) to Kapferer’s “set of principles” (1988).  “Other anthropologists see culture as an invisible lens through which we see reality,” thus it includes “primordial categories” transferred through non-conscious and non-rational processes of language, myth and art. Combining the features of earlier definitions, culture is seen as “a set of ideas, values and practices as well as an orientation and predisposition toward a life-world.” He also added that we have to see culture as “incomplete, contested, inconsistent and never fully established.”     

     The modern conditions with mass media and institutions generate a “standardization of culture.” Filipinos and Americans are said to be sharing a common culture (i.e. English language, consumerism, movie craze). Culture is not anymore tied with particular territory (i.e. Chinatown, cuisine). It becomes deterritorialized. Some anthropologists contended that culture shapes our world (cultural determinism). Others believed that no two cultures are alike due to different experiences of the world (cultural relativism). There is also the view that culture is distinguished between high and low culture. The former associated with the rich exemplifies the best thoughts, ideas produced by society while the latter pertains to the popular culture linked with the working class. “Hence, class antagonisms express both economic and cultural divisions.” Modern conditions cause diasporas and cultural dispersions. Millions of Filipinos are working abroad due to the difficulty of earning a living here and shortage of decent job opportunities.      Pertierra also delved into Philippine culture(s). Religion of course was noted first through the folk beliefs and practices such as anting-anting, aswang, pasyon, penitensya, etc., and how religion encroaches into broad areas of life of the Filipinos. He also cited the insistence of Filipinos in the principle of reciprocity (utang na loob). Come this May election, this principle of reciprocity will come into play which can decide the outcome of a local post. In the Spanish colonial times, the revolt was largely seen as local resistance than national struggle.      

     The Philippines has many local languages. The introduction of Filipino as the national language is a national prescription by the State. “Since culture always involves both consent and constraint,” the use of Filipino is reserved to formal functions except for the Tagalog-speaking regions. What remains largely in use in everyday life is the local language. In the territorially administered cultures, we confuse our cultural identity with political allegiance. An example given in our class was about the celebration of EDSA 1 as declared a non-working holiday by the government but in Ilocos, people went to work because they could not observe an event that toppled their Apo.       

     Pertierra showed how culture could be a medium for the representation of self and other. Through cultural presentations, the identity for self and other is represented by the performances. However these performances become routinized, conventional and predictable so much so that they dull our sense of identity. There are artists though who are experimenting with indigenous forms of presentations (i.e. Grace Nono, Joey Ayala). Another very good example given by Pertierra is the awarding of exemplar individuals who contributed in one way or the other on the enrichment of national culture. With that, we were projecting a national culture of exemplariness. “We may identify with it, but only vicariously. In contrast, a local culture is a lived experience.” He also noted how we have limited notion of culture through our sense of the future.  While the postmodernists visualize the future as present constitutive, our “imagination is overdetermined by its colonial past as well as constrained by its understanding of culture.” There was once a journalist who described the Philippines as “damaged culture” by way of negative instances of public behavior of Filipinos. Instead of a damaged culture, “one should point out the inefficient, corrupt or non-existent structures of government.”     

     Our ideal, our future and aspiration are very much informed by culture. “Since culture shapes our perception of the world, it also affects our response to and our location in it,” whether we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the “iron cage, ” or work for our emancipation by confronting the complexities of social life. 

Concluding Note

      This essay started with the Enlightenment and its promise of liberation from self-induced tutelage. It was seen as one of the intellectual forces that influenced the development of sociological theorizing and that set the tone for modernity. In modernity, Weber postulated the rationalization process and its consequences for modern life in which man/woman would be trapped in “iron cage.” Habermas took off from where Weber left and continued the work on rationality of action. Habermas put again reason in central stage of theorizing. He introduced the theory of communicative action with which he brought back the emancipatory component of reason, just like in the Enlightenment. Then, Pertierra located culture and its uses and its lack and surplus of meanings in the emancipation process of man/woman which the Enlightenment had promised from the start – using culture as a tool and object critique. 


Adams, Bert and R. A. Sydie (2002). Classical Sociological Theory. California: Pine Forge Press. Beiner, Ronald (n.d.). Rescuing the Rationalist Heritage. Farganis, James (1993). Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. USA: McGraw-Hill, Inc.  

Foucault, Michel (1997). What is Enlightenment. The Politics of Truth. Ed. Sylvere Lotringer. USA: Semiotext(e). 

Giddens, Anthony (1999). British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Reith Lecture on Tradition. 

Habermas, Jurgen (1979). Aspects of the Rationality of Action. Pertierra, Raul (1988). The Rationality Problematique: An Anthropological Review of Habermas’ The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1. Social Analysis No. 23, August 1988.

 ­­____________ (1998). Emancipation Within Culture. Public Policy. October/December 1998. 

Ritzer, George (1988). Sociological Theory 2nd Edition. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. 

Tucker Jr., Kenneth (1998). Anthony Giddens and Modern Social Theory.  London: Sage Publications. 

Weber, Max (1998). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. trans. Talcott Parsons. California: Roxbury Publishing Company. 



  1. very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader

  2. Make peace, not war!

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